There was a time when the principle of self-determination animated countries seeking to step out of the shadows of colonialism. Wars of independence were waged against powerful empires, movements ironically inspired by ideas originating from the European capitals that colonized them.
In a time when economies have become interdependent on a massive level, a global integration unprecedented in history, small countries like Taiwan get shoved to the sidelines by nations eager to please the rising hegemon that is China.
The United States, wanting to get its foot into the door of China and its vast potential market, was the first to turn its back on its avowed adherence to the right of nations to determine their own path. It readily bowed to the insistence that there be a “One China” policy, and unseated Taiwan from its place in the United Nations as a family of nations.
Fast forward to where we are now, Taiwan has proven to be a resilient force against what looks like increasing aggressiveness to annex it as part of mainland China. From a mere outpost of Chiang Kai-shek’s government in exile, Taiwan has grown into a democratic country fiercely proud of its independence. It has quietly bolstered its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors with its own “pivot to the south.” It has now become an economic beacon and a technological hub in the region, hosting close to 200,000 OFWs, whose working conditions are far better than those in the Middle East or even Hong Kong.
Taiwan has scientific capacity for research in biodiversity, geological, and climate change matters, and has announced officially its intention to collaborate with countries in the region to protect and develop resources in the South China Sea and advance peace and stability. It is potentially a strong ally in our quest to push for our rights as stipulated by The Hague ruling. It has promise as a key factor in moving the region toward a system of stable, clear, and rules-based allocation of maritime rights and resources in the South China Sea.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s recent blithe assumption that Taiwan is part of the Chinese state, a slip-up that is perhaps consistent with his boss’ own dream of this country becoming a province of China, was not only a diplomatic faux pas. It was indicative of the utter subservience of this regime to the tune that the Chinese Communist Party wishes the world to dance to, and that is to acquiesce in maintaining Taiwan’s status as a nonstate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown up the contrast between democratic Taiwan and the opaque and extremely controlled society that China has become under its present communist leadership. The transparency and decisiveness of Taiwan’s leadership reduced to a minimum the damage to the economy and the lives of its people. The suffering caused by China’s alleged cover-up and delay in admitting the seriousness of the viral epidemic that felled thousands in Wuhan remains to be told.
Lip service to “democracy,” as practiced in the People’s Republic of China and, increasingly, in this country and many parts of the world today, may have reduced it into a convenient slogan for social control.
But democracy as a system of rights and responsibilities exercised by a free people remains cogent as a way of life. The United States and other western nations may have tarnished its efficacy as a mechanism for making societies equitable as well as prosperous, but then there are the small Scandinavian countries that have shown that it is possible to wed equity to prosperity.
And then there is Taiwan—unrecognized as a nation in this age of economism by those who are entangled in the web of China’s debt traps and intimidated by its sheer bulk. Not only has Taiwan managed to survive and keep at bay China’s hulking menace. In extending its “citizen treatment” to an OFW recently targeted by a factotum of the Duterte administration, it has shown that it is much more of a working democracy than the Philippines, the oldest republic in Asia.
The pandemic has shown the vulnerability of even the richest and biggest nations, including China. Small nations are now faced with a historic opportunity to step out of the shadows of the old global order as constructed by superpowers, and remake the world according to alternate narratives.
Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.
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